The Magazine

One Historian's Quest

What were the Germans thinking?

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By STEVEN OZMENT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Looking forward, Kershaw urges scholars to approach the Nazi years "as if one were dealing with the French Revolution or the [Protestant] Reformation." He reminds his readers that the Nazi era, like every other, had "a [benign] social history of daily life .  .  . depicting under the conditions of the Nazi dictatorship a 'normality' distinct from the criminal characteristics of the regime." And he is quick also to remind one not to forget the hermeneutically rich centuries of German history that precede and succeed those years.

How different the present-day reality! Popular fascination with the Third Reich runs so deep that it has made the Nazi era sui generis, a bracketed "resort for lessons of political morality." In the absence of deep historical context and integration, the Holocaust has only grown in speculative importance, now the acclaimed "defining episode" of the entire 20th century. And thanks to what Kershaw calls "the spur of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's flawed book," "race ideology" has also muscled sound historical analysis aside.

Sixty-three years after the Third Reich's fall, the closing of the books on the era is still obstructed by pervasive fear of a perverse whitewashing of those untouchable years, especially by the hands of the experts. When, in the mid-80s, leading German historians attempted to bring some closure to the Nazi era by treating it objectively and dispassionately, their perceived "irreverence" left still more ruined reputations and shortened careers behind. Also, scholarly efforts to compare Nazism with other contemporary "terroristic and inhuman regimes"--e.g., Stalinism, an inference that the Third Reich was a species within a larger political genre of the age--were met with moral outrage and the accusation of coddling evil.

As Kershaw sees the present situation, not until Auschwitz can be studied together with the everyday life of the Third Reich and Hitler's regime takes its place "in the continuities that led beyond 1945 into the German Federal Democratic Republic," the Nazi era that so few can take their eyes off will continue to remain the least understood in German history.

In the late 1980s, Kershaw resolved to take his case to ground zero by writing a comprehensive biography of Hitler. At the time he believed Hitler's leading biographers, Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, had underestimated the Führer's political vision and abilities. Beyond the "ideological fanatic" everyone then agreed Hitler to be, Kershaw found a "consistent mind [that] knew how to mobilize politically" and extract everlasting loyalty. He believed Hitler's persona fitted Max Weber's concept of the "charismatic leader," typical of overpowering figures who radically change history.

In his research Kershaw stumbled upon a statement of a Nazi functionary, writing in 1934, that perfectly stated the mysterious bond he believed the Führer forged between himself and the nation. That statement was: "It is the duty of everybody to try to work towards der Führer along the lines he would wish."

In Kershaw's opinion, the dynamic of the Nazi regime came not from ordinary Germans across the land but from the Führer's "utopian vision of national redemption through racial purification." Seemingly by charisma alone, he exploited the naïve messianic hopes and illusions of post-World War I
Germans, gained complete control of the instruments of Europe's most modern state, and set the guidelines its bureaucracy would loyally follow.

From the beginning, a strong, deep anti-Semitism radiated from Berlin, sealed with the Führer's prophecy that the German Jews would be destroyed in the next war. The "power of the presumed wish of the Führer," palpable throughout the nation, was "the prelude to the Final Solution."

Although Kershaw believes Hitler alone is not enough to explain
Germany's "extraordinary lurch" into radical brutality and destruction, he does find his dictatorship to be original--successful beyond any other previous ruler and regime. Never before in history had such a package been so successfully delivered to so willing a people at so high a cost.

For Israelis, Germans, Americans, and all other people who today live in a true democracy, Kershaw's story of the Nazi regime is riveting history. In the 1930s the German people, Europe's presumed best and brightest, stressed by their recent history and preoccupied with their everyday lives, proved to be no match for a clever, charismatic leader and his complementary kitchen cabinet.

As people in democracies know and forget, always to their peril: A nation is not its leader, and woe to any whose leaders think they are. In every moment of its life, a nation is simply the present-day generation of people who live and work in it, marry and multiply for its future, and having given it their best, move on respectfully.

Kershaw's advice to vulnerable democracies is to study, learn, and take to heart their own history. He also suggests that, upon those occasions when one may be blinded by the bright lights of moral or political evil, do not hang around and gawk at them too long.

Steven Ozment, McLean professor of history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.